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American Poetry

ENGL 088.401
instructor(s):
TR 10:30-12

"If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know
that is poetry."   Emily Dickinson's description of poetic
experience, while unforgettably hers, is also imbued with the  
zest for description itself, or, for *re-description* as a
way of life, which Richard Rorty has more recently called the
very pragmatic triumph of the poem. As this version of English
88 will explore, Dickinson's expectations of the poem are not
uncommon. Nor is her assumption that  poetry is experience, and
experience, poetry, unique in American literary history. Thus,
the Puritan poet and minister, Edward Taylor, used his poems for
a kind of  hygiene ( the purgation Taylor's meditations would
achieve may be spiritual, but his metaphors are undeniably
intestinal! ), while Edgar Allan Poe's high-strung, technically
compulsive lyrics simulate the insomniac tension of mind racing
ahead of  itself.  Journalist, opera buff and regular commuter
from his Brooklyn borough, Walt Whitman endeavored to give  
*Leaves of Grass* the currency of the newspaper, the immediacy of
an aria heard from the front row and the crowded anonymity and
intimacy both of the ride to work. Equally concerned to reveal and render  
culture as music ( but more committed than Whitman was to the
individual texture of the speaking voice)  Langston
Hughes tapped the cultural mnemonic of the blues, crafting poems that read
like songs one knows from everywhere in America-- and has yet never
heard before. If Williams Carlos Williams still declares his
modernity and his kinship with our culture of speed  by
rendering his northern New Jersey environs in poems blurred and
gliding-- poems with the feel and hum and bumpiness one
experiences in driving a car between suburban towns--  Robert
Frost's deceptively mild narrative poems teach  patience and a
kind of nosy attentiveness to the sound of the voice. Frost's
folksiness is a feint: one waits for his garrulous speakers to
disclose what's never far beneath their woolgathering : his
sexual or professional  longing, her thwarted intellect or
grief,  their secret of murder committed long ago behind the
bucolic mailbox.

That Robert Lowell learned from Elizabeth Bishop who learned
from Marianne Moore who learned from Emily Dickinson who learned
from such Puritans as Edward Taylor--this  makes much canonical
American poetry an elaboration of the New England mind. That
Allen Ginsberg learned from William Carlos Williams who learned
from Walt Whitman, as did Hart Crane and Langston Hughes ( as
did, in their ways,  John O'Hara and John Ashbery) -- this makes
much canonical American poetry an elaboration on what it is like
to be male, young, artistically prolific and full of desire in
New York City. That the traditions and worldviews which the
foregoing two sentences imply should be so rich, and so clearly
parochial as well, will give grist to our discussions. Surveying
American poetry from the Puritans though the end of the 1960's,
this course will introduce students to a wide range of poets,
including Bradstreet, Taylor, Wheatly, Dwight, Poe, Emerson,
Whitman, Dickinson, Robinson, Frost, Moore, Hughes, Toomer,
Stevens, Williams, Crane, Lowell, Bishop, Plath, Ginsberg,
Brooks, O'Hara and Ashbery . Course format will be  
lecture/discussion with class time more or less evenly divided
between the two. Course requirements: 2 papers, a midterm and a
final exam.